Should they stay or should they go? Tampa City Council ponders RNC surveillance cameras

09/20/12 Janelle Irwin
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Tampa officials have to figure out what to do with the more than 100 security cameras they purchased with grant money from the Republican National Convention. City council members grappled over security and privacy concerns amid frustration that they may have signed on for more than they bargained for.

Months before the Republican Convention landed in Tampa, city council members were hard at work planning for security. A secured “event zone”, armored vehicles, parade routes – and surveillance cameras. Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor brought the issue to council in March at the last minute and told board members that a vote could not be delayed by even one week. Everyone except for Mary Mulhern voted in favor of the contract. But council member Harry Cohen said that shouldn’t have happened.

“This item was walked on to the agenda as an emergency. And we were absolutely told that we had to pass it that day because there was no more time to examine these issues. And I really, really regret now that we went ahead and did that. All through the process of getting ready for this convention this council consistently gave the benefit of the doubt to the administration at every turn. We wanted to cooperate, we wanted to be fair, we wanted to take the time to examine these things, but at every step of the way we were cooperative. And this particular item at the time, when it came up, there was intense concern expressed by council members about the future use of these cameras.”

One of the problems they’ve found is this: the security cameras came with a one-year contract and it hasn’t even started yet. So the good news is the cameras won’t cost the city a penny until that contract expires. According to Tampa Police captain Mike Baumaister, the bad news: it’ll cost the city pretty big if they decide to keep them.

“I have the estimate for the whole system. The first year is estimated – industry standards usually have a 12-14% - the number we were quoted when we put the RFP out was about $186,000 which equates to about 9% for the first year.”

That figure would go up each year as the equipment got older. And it’s only accurate if the city keeps the cameras where they already are – bunched up in downtown Tampa. Council members talked about moving some of them to areas that have higher crime rates than the downtown district. Baumaister said if they do that, it’ll be expensive.

“The camera and the housing unit is about $6,000 a piece, the radio and the licensing is about $8,000 for the camera. Those can be repositioned if that’s the wishes. But then when you get into different topics – if you’re going to put it in another area and you have to put up a pole, that’s $10,000 and then you have to add electric to the pole, that’s an additional $3,000.”

City council member Frank Reddick considered said some of the cameras should be moved to his district which includes East Tampa because illegal dumping is prevalent there.

“3300 block of Clark Avenue, District 5 – 7 out of 10 are in district five where there’s a high concentration of illegal dumping activities. And that’s a disgrace and that’s putting the burden of responsibility on the sanitation department that go out there and try to remove all the debris that’s been put on the side of the roads and I think, not only is it a public safety issue, it’s a health issue.”

And that’s why council member Charlie Miranda thinks a costly camera move might be worth the expenditure.

“In other words, if we were to relocate to an area where there’s dumping – two or three cameras would do that in that grid to catch the illegal dumpsters I assume. If you look at the cost of the poles and the cost of the transmission equipment for the integrated system to work and you look at the cost of what the illegal dumpsters cost the city, I guarantee you it would be prudent to put the posts up.”

But cost wasn’t really an issue for residents who came to speak on the issue. Fourteen people spoke. Eight of them said the cameras are an invasion of privacy. City Council member Lisa Montelione, said the privacy issue shouldn’t be a worry.

“If people who live in Sky Point, for example, are worried about the cameras that are in Curtis Hixon Park and they can be turned on the windows or the balconies of Sky Point, you can actually mask out the entire building so you cannot see anything other than that there is a structure there.”

Jon Gales is an activist who created an online map of the surveillance cameras shortly after they were installed. He said continuing to use them puts residents at risk of being under surveillance 24/7.

“I can see one of these cameras from my bedroom. It’s invasive and unacceptable that Chief Castor can watch my life if she chooses. It was mentioned earlier that the structures like my condo can be blocked out, but the city has not demonstrated that they have the real time 3D motion tracking in place to accomplish this. It’s not a fixed point camera, the cameras can zoom and move, so blocking out a structure is not an easy task.”

Heidi Damon was one of six residents to speak in favor of using the cameras for security. She was attacked in an Ybor City parking garage three years ago. She said that’s where cameras need to be.

“There’s only garages and parking lots in the city of Tampa, most of which I park in the Tampa garages. I actually did a little bit of research, I didn’t want to get too statistical, but this is a three and a half page rap sheet of the garage that I was attacked in just within the time of December, 2001 to October, 2009.”

Council members asked Tampa police whether using the cameras in high crime areas would actually cut down on crime. Ray Estevez, a detective with the Tampa Police Department, said it wouldn’t stop crime, but it would move it.

“People that want to commit crimes are going to find to commit crime in my opinion, I’ve done this for over 20 years and anybody with common sense will tell you – if you turn on your porch light, if you harden your target, your home, your parks, your community – if your community doesn’t put up with it, if you put things in place to deter crime, to make crimes solvable, crime’s going to go where it’s allowed to go.”

The entire discussion lasted so long, city council members had to vote to extend their meeting by a half an hour twice. But the lengthy conversation did nothing for a solution. Council member Harry Cohen blew up late in the meeting because neither Mayor Buckhorn nor Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor showed up to talk about the issue. And neither did any city staff members.

“And I was a little bit shocked when we started that the administration did not send down a high-ranking representative to talk to us about this matter. But I am completely floored now that we have been talking about it for almost three hours that no one has come down. To me it is a signal that our input is not wanted or that our input is not welcomed.”

Council members voted unanimously to hear from city legal staff, Tampa Police and others. Their plan is to gather information on costs associated with keeping the security cameras whether they stay put or get moved as well as information on how the cameras will be managed. Council will hear that information on October 10th.

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